The Black Mountains
If you are out riding in bad weather, it means you are a badass. Period. Fair-weather riding is a luxury reserved for Sunday afternoons and wide boulevards. Those who ride in foul weather – be it cold, wet, or inordinately hot – are members of a special club of riders who, on the morning of a big ride, pull back the curtain to check the weather and, upon seeing rain falling from the skies, allow a wry smile to spread across their face. This is a rider who loves the work.Velominati, Rule 9
We woke up on day two to much more promising weather. At dawn there were even patches of blue sky, the top of Mynydd Troed was visible, and there were even a few shadows being weakly cast by the sun. We had looked after ourselves the night before: thoroughly rehydrated by ale, energised with slabs of lamb and chips, rested with the extra hour in bed. The sun put a spring in our step, and we were soon out on the road.
First the descent into Talgarth, and this time we stuck to the main A479. Up and over the pass at Pengenfford for a fast, thrilling descent. Wide bends, clear roads and light traffic meant we could just lean over the handlebars and forget about the brakes. We rolled into Talgarth a few exhilarating minutes after going through the pass, our average speed for the first section up at almost 40km/h.
We then had a nice rolling section along part of NCR 8, through Felindre and Tregoyd, still in early autumn sunshine. We turned right and started our big climb of the day, steady at first and then a sudden wall at Cocket Wood where we had to do the unthinkable and jump off and push for a couple of minutes. It was so steep I could barely walk up in my cycling shoes, and a sudden rain shower apparently out of nowhere made the surface greasy. Back on, we carried on up the lanes, climbing slowly, a patch of drizzle filling the gap between Twmpa and Hay Bluff ahead. This pass, Gospel Pass, was our target: a well-known local climb and the gateway to the lovely Vale of Ewyas beyond. We came out onto a flattish patch of open ground and there it was, shrouded in fog above us. Big drops of rain blew across us from the right and it seemed the weather forecast no longer applied. We were in for a proper Welsh welcome.
We tucked in to a fold in the hill and got a little respite, before we left Twmpa and headed onto the slopes of Hay Bluff. We started climbing again and re-emerged onto open ground. The views were still there but the weather was closing in. I stopped to take a photo and to put my jacket on while Graeme carried on ahead. When I caught him up, he had slowed to walking pace. I thought he was just waiting for me but he nodded ahead.
There was the bizarre sight of a herd of cows ambling along the road, like family stroll taken after an extended Sunday lunch. In the middle of the 20-strong herd, playing the role of the pace-setting family patriarch, was a large 4×4. We initially thought this was the farmer, but as we got closer we could see that it had a Luxembourg registration plate and was presumably a tourist. The group had clearly been together for some time, and one could only imagine the conversation taking place inside the car, presumably in some bemusement at their bovine escort. This put us in an awkward position. The rain was worsening by the minute, the wind was getting strong and we were going so slowly we could barely stay upright. Hypothermia was a distinct possibility. Then my map memory kicked in; I remembered that the road soon turned in a hairpin, and realised that we were only 50m from the road on the other side of the bend. We pulled off, ran across the moor, and rejoined the road leaving our Luxembourgeois herd behind.
Now we were on the last part of the climb. On a sunny day this stretch must be glorious as the road leads the eye up and up into the pass, but we were now riding into the teeth of a gale and the freezing lumps of rain were smashing into our faces. It was hard. It occurred to me that if I was out on the hill with a pack, fleece, waterproof gear, food and hot drink. My hands were frozen and I contemplated how serious a puncture would be at this point. The water flowed in streams down the road towards us. And yet… for all the pain and cold and discomfort, a kind of grim happiness set in. Every metre was a small victory, a battle won that brought us a tiny bit closer to the top. A couple of cars slowed to let us pass and gave us some disbelieving encouragement, and we started to realise that not many people could do what we were doing. We were badass. And the road turned left and suddenly flattened, the view disappearing behind us. We were there. Gospel Pass.
These weren’t conditions to be hanging around, so after a brief swig of single malt we headed down the Vale. This is a long and lovely hidden valley that threads its way down towards Abergavenny, and the last time I drove down on a glorious May afternoon I imagined I was on a bike. Today it just rained hard all the way down. We always seemed to riding towards better weather without ever reaching it. We considered stopping at a pub to warm up but it seemed pointless if we were only heading out into the rain again. So we rode and rode through the rain, down through the lovely Vale of Eywas, and didn’t stop for a moment to take it in.
After the Queens Head at Stanton we took a right turn and followed the road past Forest Coal Pit and in to Crickhowell. We hadn’t stopped all day, so we grabbed a brew and watched in some disbelief as, at last, the long-promised sun suddenly emerged. At last the chance to ride in some proper Welsh sun! The waterproofs went away and we tackled our final climb, out of Crickhowell and up through Tretower and Cwmdu. The road is a long and steady gradient and for a while my velopark training served me well, rocked back onto my quads and keeping a good steady rhythm. A couple of kilometres after Waun Fach, with Mynydd Troed looming to our left and Dînas Castle almost in view, my legs went. All of a sudden my they were empty, I couldn’t pedal, couldn’t go anywhere. The man with the hammer had caught up with me. I was hung up by a nail. I had bonked. With the end almost in sight there seemed little point in stopping to take on carbs, but I was completely done. It felt like I was trying to empty the ocean with a sea-shell, every pedal stroke taking me precisely nowhere, the end always an almost infinite distance away. I feel so far back that Graeme even turned round and came back to make sure I was alright. But I wasn’t stopping x I was getting in, even if I was the lanterne rouge. And so it was that I ingloriously finished the ride, rolling gently into the car park and half-falling off the bike.
Fortunately the autumn sun was still shining and we headed to the pub beer garden for a final celebratory pint of the trip. Our hosts obliged us with some amazing home-made chicken strips, and the conversation turned to planning the next trip.